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Academics turn to ‘crowdfunding’ to get research projects off the ground

Crowdsourcing is winning supporters as a financial incubator for early-stage research, university fundraising and getting ideas to market.

By MOIRA MACDONALD | SEP 11 2013
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Will Walmsley expected to be backpacking around the world after graduating last September with a master’s degree in applied science from the University of Toronto. Instead, he’s CEO and lead designer of Whirlscape Inc., a company founded on a university research project he and Xavier Snelgrove developed as part of the master’s program, working with their professor Khai Truong. The co-founders were able to commercialize the mobile technology, called Minuum, thanks in part to online, crowd-sourced fundraising.

Using Indiegogo, a crowdfunding platform, Mr. Walmsley’s team reached its $10,000 fundraising goal in less than 14 hours last March. They ultimately raised $87,000 to help put Minuum into its first round of production. Most of the 10,000 donations were no more than $5. Crowdfunders like San Francisco-based Indiegogo allow anyone to contribute even small amounts to a cause or fledgling project.

That’s why projects that are best suited to the crowdfunding medium are those with broad popular appeal. Mr. Walmsley’s technology, Minuum, is proving to be a hit with cellphone owners who dislike the hassle of typing on small devices. The technology scales back mobile keyboards to a single, space-saving dimension and allows users to make lots of typing mistakes, due to a pitch-perfect version of auto-correction.
Crowdfunding’s usefulness to the academic community has expanded beyond the commercialization of ideas. The medium is now being used by staff and faculty to raise money for other activities, including university development and early-stage research.

Dan Gillis, an assistant professor and statistician at the University of Guelph’s computer science school, raised $15,000 on Microryza, a platform set up to crowdfund scientific research. (Its homepage urges visitors to “Find projects that interest you, contribute directly to the research, and get the results.”) Dr. Gillis’s project, already under way, aims to evaluate and test a website called Farm to Fork that links food bank donors directly with food bank staff so that donors know what donations are needed, when.

Microryza is geared to assist projects that are seen by traditional funders as too high risk or at too early a stage in development. Researchers who succeed in raising some money early on can generate preliminary data that may strengthen their subsequent proposal to a major research-granting agency.

For early-stage academic research, crowdfunding’s potential “is huge,” said Dr. Gillis. Researchers can post information about a project and, if the project finds sufficient supporters, ramp it up quickly, instead of going through the usual lengthy application and vetting process for traditional funding. The funding method also has “some nice side-effects,” he said, such as giving scientists a direct channel to communicate with the public.

Dr. Gillis’s project was the first from Canada to use Microryza’s platform, but not the last. A project led by McGill University neurology professor Hyman Schipper launched a funding campaign with Microryza in July, seeking $75,000 to test a drug with potential for treating Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Cindy Wu, one of two University of Washington science graduates who founded the San Francisco-based crowdfunding platform in 2012, said, “We have over 500 proposals and it’s growing every day.”

Microryza vets proposals to ensure they represent new scientific research and are by genuine researchers. Projects on Microryza – and on most crowdfunding platforms – receive funds only if they reach their total goal. The platform takes a five per cent commission for every successfully funded project. Contributors are entitled to learn the project’s results.

Besides helping fund research, crowdfunding is showing its potential for data-gathering, too. Indiegogo’s uBiome campaign, by a University of California start-up, invited contributors last winter to buy a kit and send in their personal biological samples for analysis by DNA sequencing technology. Researchers work up a contributor’s “microbiome” (a unique balance of bacteria present in different parts of the body), compare it to other participants’, and, if contributors agree, add their information to the project’s database aimed at mapping the human microbiome. In this instance, contributors get access to their DNA analysis, their personal bacterial balance and a comparison with others who took part. A predecessor, ground-breaking microbiome project by the National Institutes of Health mapped 250 people. This crowdfunding one, by comparison, anticipates mapping thousands.

In another twist, university staff are experimenting with crowdfunding for university development. In Vancouver, Emily Carr University of Art + Design has integrated crowdfunding into a long-term, $21-million capital campaign towards building a new campus. Money raised from alumni – including any donations made through the Match It Up campaign on Indiegogo – will be matched by a fund created by board of governors member Bob Rennie. The goal for alumni donations through crowdfunding is set at just $5,000, but the experiment is more about connecting with far-flung alumni than it is about fundraising.

“Everything about this campaign is also about alumni engagement,” said Broek Bosma, associate vice-president, advancement and alumni affairs. Since Emily Carr’s alumni typically work in creative industries where crowdfunding got its start, they are already familiar with the tool, said Mr. Bosma. “If you believe that the medium is the message, then this is the perfect medium for us to connect with our alumni.”

Despite the buzz, the crowdfunding tool has its limits. There’s a misperception that all anyone needs to do is to “take a few photos, put up a video and all of a sudden money appears in your bank account,” said Mr. Bosma, and the many underfunded campaigns languishing on crowdfunding platforms illustrate his point. Successful projects have worked because they have been about things that resonated with potential contributors, did not over-promise on results or the type of information contributors would receive, and often were promoted using other forms of outreach, including other social media and standard news releases.

The method is new and carries some risks, said Dr. Gillis. Crowdfunding platforms may grow saturated with proposals, and it’s unclear how tenure and promotion committees will view the exercise when it comes to assessing an individual’s research activities and achievements.

Still, Ms. Wu, co-founder of Microryza, remained optimistic. “There’s never going to be a time when humans run out of research questions to ask or ideas to try,” she said. “And the market is still very young, so there’s room for many players to exist.”

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  1. Karen Blair / September 15, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    I think crowdfunding for science research is a really interesting turn of events. I’m a Canadian post-doctoral fellow doing research in the USA – which somewhat restricts the number of traditional research grants that I am eligible to apply for. Consequently, we too are using Microryza to raise funds for research on the physiology of prejudice! We will see how it turns out – right now we are just over 25% of our goal. If sites like Microryza would add a peer review process I think that it could really take off and be an excellent alternative source of funding – plus it allows individual members of the public to feel more directly involved in research projects that are of interest to them! If you want to see more about our study visit: http://www.wecanholdhands.com

  2. Richard MacLennan / September 18, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    I think that crowd-funding of scientific research has some potential, but also has some limitations. There is no peer review of the proposed research. Just think if someone makes inordinate claims about treating some health problem, which misleadingly may attract funding from persons afflicted with such a problem.

  3. Arif / May 1, 2015 at 1:11 pm

    Crowdfunding for social enterprise is gaining momentum. Check this group which has interesting discussions on crowd funding

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/crowdfunding.socialenterprise/

  4. Sebastian Klassman / September 19, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    Many universities are utilizing crowdfunding for academic research. A lot of projects fail to even materialize, this is where crowdfunding comes in. To raise funds and awareness. I think you will steady growth and more will use crowdfunding, when they create or start new campaigns for their projects.

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